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by Ralph Hammann on August 1, 2013

Johnny Baseball
Book by Richard Dresser, music by Robert Reale, lyrics by Willie Reale, directed by Gordon Greenberg, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through Aug. 3


That this delight hasn’t yet made it to Broadway is perplexing, but perhaps this smash production will change its fortune. Certainly, it can’t be that a musical set in Fenway Park would not be welcome in NYC. Not one this good!

Both an old-fashioned (as in good, not clunky) and a sparkling new musical, Johnny Baseball is a show with the heart of Damn Yankees and the conscience of the recent film about Jackie Robinson, 42. Set in 2004, 1919 and 1948, the play depicts the rise and fall of the fictional Johnny O’Brien, who is dubbed “Johnny Baseball” for his adoration of the game and his uncanny pitching ability, which lands him a coveted spot on the Boston Red Sox. There, he meets his idol, Babe Ruth, as well as his love, Daisy Wyatt, a black singer with a voice like Etta James. Johnny and Daisy are innocents (and virgins), and their dual naïveté charms us and, along with their lovely songs, goes a long way in engaging our empathy. But it is 1919, and interracial romance is something that could ruin Johnny’s burgeoning career if not kept hidden.

Dresser and Willie Reale have set what is essentially Johnny and Daisy’s love story within a cleverly imagined framing device that suggests the Red Sox’ 86-year losing streak stemmed from something other than the curse of the Bambino.

Like Damn Yankees, this show has hints of the fabulous about it, but the antagonist here is far more pernicious and realistic than the former’s devil. And, through ballclub owners and managers, racism rears its horned head again in 1948 (a year after Robinson broke the color line) when a young black player, being championed by Johnny, tries out for the Red Sox. To Dresser’s and the Reales’ credits, the show stays delicately balanced between social critique and musical romance (that of baseball and people) without becoming too weighty or weightless. It has it both ways, and, like Robinson stealing home, adeptly purloins our hearts.

The music and lyrics provide continuous joy as the Reales marvelously evoke the various time periods of the play as well as its sometimes abruptly changing moods. Some songs are moonstruck-romantic; others are sharply or naughtily comic; many are rousing and infectious. Unlike much being written for contemporary theater, Robert Reale’s music is tuneful with fresh melodies that linger afterward. Willie Reale’s lyrics are genuinely witty, and not only do the rhymes happily take one by surprise, but they also accomplish the not-inconsiderable feat of feeling inevitable.

With inventive staging on Timothy R. Maccabee’s playful setting, Gordon Greenberg encourages his energetic ensemble to play their various roles with deft changes. Denis Jones’ choreography merges fluidly with direction and scenic elements.

As Tim, the young black man whose dream collides with the clinging Sox racism that led them to turn down Robinson, Derrick Baskin engages us with vulnerability and earnestness. He also has winning duet with Alan H. Green’s enjoyable cameo as Willie Mays. It’s a heavy order to embody Babe Ruth, but a memorable Tom McGowan does so with authority and keenly suggests the brashness and ego, as well as the humor and humanity of the icon.

De’Adre Aziza, wonderful as Daisy, sings with a smoky voice that has been infused with bourbon and maple syrup. Tempering her natural sex appeal with frankness and steely intellect, she is entirely tempting. James Snyder’s Johnny grounds the show in a beautifully modulated performance that sails over the possible pitfalls of cliché. He has a heroic handsomeness of which he seems unaware in his sincere and effortlessly arresting performance.

Another hit for the WTF in Jenny Gersten’s winning season.